Our next feature on the Day in a Life series is Ong Kah Jing, a Year Two Business Administration student. Usually going by just the name KJ, he was the Project Director of the Tembusu College/STEER Indonesia Expedition and Director of The Conservation Conversation. He is also the founder and CEO of OKJ Discoveries (www.okjdiscoveries.com) – a knowledge website that produces intriguing content to pique curious minds.
When you interviewed professors for this Day in the Life series, you asked them for questions they would like to ask students. I will use this chance to turn these questions to you. Dr Margaret asked about students’ background, how the past has shaped them. Would you have anything to share about this? What rouses you to do all that you are doing?
If we were to look at the big picture, it’s definitely for my future family. At the end of the day, it ties back to this simple narrative – I feel very fortunate to have come from a family that has provided not only great financial security for me and my three siblings, which is already a challenge by itself, but also for the fact that, my parents were there when we were growing up. In the typical Singapore narrative, I don’t think that that is something many can accomplish. And while that is in some ways hard for their generation, I believe that it is harder for our generation to achieve the same.
So I accepted the fact that if I wanted to achieve the same as what my father and mother did, then I needed to start early. It doesn’t make sense that I get to enjoy this throughout my life, and my future wife and children don’t.
Taking into consideration what you have done and what you are working on now, perhaps many would have the impression that it has been a successful and smooth journey for you, but how would you think of that?
I think I’m always flattered by that or that they see that I have good work ethic and all that. But maybe because I am a marketing student, so I tend to try and build that image for my public persona. When I have the chance though, I do tell them that it is not such a rosy picture. There were some freshmen that asked me like, how I was able to keep on top of everything. Simply because I am doing the documentary, I am doing my own business, and I have good grades in terms of my academics, and I have a girlfriend so on and so forth. But every day it’s still a juggle and struggle. Even at this point, there are new methods I try every now and then to manage this, most are considered a failure, but I learn from that. It’s always a learning journey. I haven’t reached the point where I feel like, hey this is a working formula and I can just keeping using this.
At Formal Dinner in Tembusu
What guides what you do, how do you prioritise, or are there any principles that you follow?
For me, a consistent principle that I always hold myself to is that every single project that I embark on, or every single thing that I do, it always has to have more than one output. Because, if I want to get to where I hope to be, it is no longer efficient enough to say, this is the goal I want to achieve, and because of that I want to achieve only that. For me, that is not enough. While I do have that main objective, along the way, I must accomplish many other things as well.
So, let’s say for the documentary, still my single biggest endeavour, the main objective was to realise my lifelong dream of creating a documentary, which I achieved with the release of The Conservation Conversation. But, on the side lines, there were many other objectives that were met and of great importance to me.
For one, I have a very strong sense of belonging to Tembusu, and one of the things that I wanted to do was pioneer something, to add value back. The challenge of running the student-initiated STEER programme was also another objective. I’ve never had the opportunity to do a project of this size, or this scale before, so accomplishing that allowed me to hit another objective. It was also one of the ways for me to know more people outside of my house because once again with me running a business and all that, I am a de facto phantom of Tembusu College, which is something that I do not enjoy but it’s just something that I have to accept. I found this as an avenue to be able to interact with other people from other houses and of other expertise, and this kind of ties with the other objective of why I came to Tembusu College. At the end of the day, I want to learn from people from different walks of life, different interests, and that is one of the core reasons why I wanted to come to Tembusu College. Being part of the STEER experience condenses the entire Tembusu experience, and what we could get out of it, into one year and an extremely ambitious project.
Certainly, it was a once in a lifetime experience. And I would do it all over again. But the toll of conducting just the expedition with the documentary makes me consider whether I should do it after I graduate.
So, as you say, it was a very ambitious project, what is, if you had to pinpoint, one of the biggest challenges in doing this?
We acknowledged that the expedition was something that none of us had done before. So together, we planned, and worked it out. The constant challenge was just not to be intimidated by the fact that we didn’t know anything, and also to use it to our advantage because I’m a firm believer in deliberate ignorance. If utilised properly, it will allow us to reach beyond the limits formed by conventional thinking by not acknowledging it in the first place.
With the team of Tembusu College/STEER Indonesia Expedition
From what I hear, and also from my experience working with you, you hold yourself to very high standards while being supportive of your teammates. How do you manage your own and everybody else’s expectations?
Most of the time, when working with teammates, once you are able to select people either of greater talent than yourself or of great potential, my inherent desire to reach for the higher standard, is ultimately something that is relative. One of the other principles that I hold is what my father says – to do your best is up to interpretation. Through my parents’ teachings and how they have nurtured me and my siblings, we interpreted doing your best, as to meaning to do it to a point whereby if you were to look back, you can’t feel ashamed about it because there was nothing more you could have done at that time.
How are you are so positive? Do you consider yourself positive?
So you see, this is where the deliberate ignorance comes into play, because it allows you to be optimistic in the face of adversity. There are some days where reality just hits you hard. I go through these episodes on a regular basis as well. And then, suddenly, one of my team members might just recommend something, and then I get switched back into this deliberate ignorance kind of mood, like, “yes that’s our way out, we can do this,” that sort of thing, “rainbow and sunshine, we can make it happen, ya.” But, uh, I think that is just something that I was born with, I don’t think I cultivated the attitude myself, that is one of the natural advantages I have in terms of these kind of things.
So apart from the expedition itself, is there anything else you have done where you could share when reality hit you hard?
Well, one of the things was definitely when I entered university. I have a girlfriend, who I love very much, and we’ve been together at this point for over six years already, so you see, it kind of fits well with my plans of working hard, for the future family . But this also meant many conflicts at the very start because you have to put in time and the effort to work hard now so that you may be able to have both time and money for them in the future, and why be an entrepreneur when there are many other avenues to do that as well? I’ve seen a lot of capable friends who have gone to insurance, or who are just very good businessmen. And because they have found many short-term opportunities, they are just rolling in dough right now. Here I am though, after three years, and I have not seen that result yet. I have not seen that equal amount of success.
So, on one of those days when I was just doing my regular stuff, already late in the night, my girlfriend sent me a sound recording. She was learning how to play the ukulele, and sometimes she’d send songs, and one of the songs she sent was, what’s that, the volcano, this volcano song, what’s that movie where that volcano started singing? Wait let me see if I can find that.
(Searches on YouTube)
It’s the lava song, before Inside Out. So she decided to sing that, and for some reason I just started crying. When it ended I played it again and I cried even harder. That night and few days later, I started thinking about why I reacted in such a way. Then I realised that for someone with lots of ambition, such ambition is also very selfish. One of the first things I did to pursue my own ambitions was to sacrifice my time with the people I love the most. I am very lucky that all of them are very understanding and supportive and all that, but this is also something that I am more aware about and am working to ensure that it is not as bad as the year before.
Storytelling has long been part of Kah Jing’s growing up years, and it continues to drive his documentary aspirations today
How do you stay grounded among all these ambitious, dreams?
I think it’s easy to stay grounded when you actually haven’t accomplished anything yet, and I think it’s a much easier thing for me as compared to those who have already done so.
I, on the other hand, have done a lot but I don’t think I’ve done as well. At the beginning, I thought I would be someone that would just grow a big head from it because, for me to be humble is a very conscious decision and experience. But, when I’m doing all of these things and when I’m running my business and when I seek for advice and you just see all the other things that people are trying to do , I think you can’t help but be grounded because you realise that everyone has this passion and drive and vision for great things. I think once you open yourself up to the world, it’s a breeze to be grounded because you are reminded by the fact that everyone is actually just as ambitious as you are.
I guess let’s divert a little at this point, so on your Instagram, you write “storyteller, explorer” – what does this mean to you?
“Storyteller” comes from the fact that I’m naturally talkative, and it’s also one of the things that I enjoy doing especially when it comes to OKJ discoveries. It’s when we get a story that we have discovered or someone has entrusted us with, and then we tell it to the audience, not just to satisfy the people who are interested, but also to also to generate interest from people who are not yet interested, which is ultimately my aim.
“Explorer” is from why I want to do things like documentary and has been a big part of my life. I was fortunate enough to have a cable box when I was young, and one of the things that I watched on a consistent basis was the educational channels: Nat Geo, Discovery Channel… And so in the comfort of my home, I have explored the world. I do enjoy the entire process. Sometimes I enjoy just sitting down and listening to other people’s stories and when I have the opportunity to share their stories with someone else I am gladly do so. And then you just realise the entire world is just prettier because now it’s painted by the personalised stories of everyone else.
Kah Jing, with his father
What makes an inspiring person to you?
Apart from my idol, being obviously my father, who ultimately is someone that I want to become, there’s really no one who has inspired me.
Could you share what is it about your father that inspires you?
Well, my father is just a man of many capabilities and if I’m half the man he is, I would consider myself a success, because you are talking about someone who is not only charismatic, and at least in his heyday, he is one of those kind, muscular style, so he has a good physique. He may not have had a formal education, but he’s someone who is just naturally gifted. He can calculate, do mental calculations to two decimal points and with percentages. And it’s also the way that he thinks. He is incredibly street smart and figures out innovative solutions that seem so obvious in hindsight. At this point, I am slowly trying to grasp what he is capable of in terms of his thinking. He, and many people that I’ve met who are similar to him, the way they think is incredible, they really think about the big picture and at the same time, all of the small roads that lead up to it and all the different outcomes. He’s someone that is of great ingenuity and also shows great care to his family.
Back to the questions asked by professors, here is one from Dr John van Wyhe: Do you waste time? What do you waste time on?
Ya, a lot, which is why I’m inefficient. Well, like I procrastinate a lot, I would want to work on my essay and then I suddenly just decide to binge watch YouTube and it still makes me feel horrible every time. Every leisure time that I take would ultimately lead to sacrifice time that I have with my family and girlfriend. I procrastinate maybe because there is no me-time in the sense when I’m doing all this, I either sleep, do work, do school work, do actual work, and even let’s say if I go out with my family or girlfriend that is time with them, it’s kind of really a foregone concept of having me-time. So my procrastination could be a natural reaction to that lack of me-time. But it is something that I look towards fixing.
A proud member of Gaja House
Is there anything you want to add or share?
The challenges I am facing is nothing different from what everyone else is facing. It is the same fight. Just in a different context. And this is also one of the things that keeps me grounded, it is the fact that while I am doing my business and all that, which through just the marketing of myself, the public opinion might be “hey this guy is doing a lot more than what other people are doing”, I am doing this at the expense of a lot of other initiatives. Like I don’t do house events, I don’t do CCAs, I don’t do university life itself. And that requires in some ways, as much time and attention as with what I’m doing. The problems that I face are not unique. Everyone else faces it, it’s just that the context is very different. I’m running a business and studying at the same time but it is equally tough for people who are living their student life and doing their academics and all, trying to go for NOC or doing IFG, ICG, and all that. That’s also equally as challenging to balance, so I have a lot of learn from everyone as well.
This interview series was conducted by Jesslene Lee, with images from Ong Kah Jing’s personal collection.